Review of “Energy, a Human History,” by Richard Rhodes

A historical survey of the major developments in the world’s collection and use of energy, from coal to steam power to electricity. It contains a bunch of interesting tidbits, including a few that corrected misconceptions I had.

For example, it tells the story of the battle between AC and DC proponents for which method is better for the transmission of energy (AC having won out, of course, due to the relative ease in transforming it to high voltage/low current for transmission, and then back; this property enables efficient transmission over long distances). Popular culture tends to tell this story as a battle between Thomas Edison (pro-DC) and Nikola Tesla (inventor of AC induction motor). The book, however, indicates that the real battle was between the companies of Edison (Edison Electric Light Company) and George Westinghouse (Westinghouse Electric Company) in the late 1800s, with Tesla more a side-figure in the battle. One of the turning points in favor of AC was the its use to transmit electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo. Read the gory details here (War of the currents), including how Edison sought to associate AC with the electric chair.

Other stories include the development of oil drilling — including in Saudi Arabia — and steam power and automobiles. One useful part of the book is that every development in energy is accompanied by discussion of its societal effects, most notably on jobs and the environment.

I found the latter part of the book, especially that regarding renewables and alternative sources, somewhat lacking. The entirety of the attention is given to nuclear energy, and how it is misunderstood and should be more supported. This focus is perhaps intentional — one of the points is that nuclear energy has dwarfed renewables (except hydroelectricity) in terms of energy provided, something that has only started to change the last few years (see page 11 here for a useful but somewhat depressing plot of energy consumption by source over time) However, it does leave the reader without an understanding of the full landscape.

I study CS/Econ and applications to socio-technical issues. Blog about books and technical issues. PhD Stanford, BS/BA UT Austin.

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